For years, preachers and teachers of preachers (W.A. Criswell, Haddon Robinson, Bryan Chappel among others) have stressed the importance of what Chappel calls “The Big Idea.” What one thing legitimately arises out of this text that needs to be shared with the congregation. It is an idea that needs to be summarized in one sentence. Haddon Robinson says that “sermons should have one major idea (having one subject and one complement), even if the big idea breaks down into 3 subpoints.”
Criswell stated that having this “big idea” (he didn’t call it that) is the most fundamental step in preaching. He works to keep that “big idea” in mind throughout the entire sermon.
Bruce Walkte in an article in Biblioteca Sacra (more about this series tomorrow) challenges this. He states that the idea of a “Big Idea” “though good, is inadequate.”
The Bible is not interested in impersonal "ideas" and ethical principles. Moreover, the Bible is not simply about divine matters. The Bible is more than concepts about God or ethical principles or Israel’s witness to God. The Bible is God’s address to His people and He encounters them through Spirit-filled communicators of His Word. Since the inspired author’s "ideas" and "principles" are true, they contain a moral imperative that demands a response. In other words an "idea" in the Bible is a message to be believed and acted on, not merely a notion and/or a guide to proper behavior. A message, then, is not an idea but the expected response to the idea.
One of the struggles in my many years of preaching has been to keep that in mind. There is a lot in the Bible “to know.” And I think that there is, today, a dearth of biblical literacy. And so too often my preaching has been “to inform.”
One of the recurring themes of my discussions with my friend Bruce Nelson (this month is the first anniversary of his tragic death). Is there a difference between intellectual belief and saving belief? (The presumed answer is “yes.”) But then WHAT IS THAT DIFFERENCE?
This goes beyond moralizing. As one person has put it (and for the life of me, I can’t remember who it was) “Our knowledge already far out-strips our obedience.”
Waltke’s point is well taken (although I don’t think that Criswell, Robinson or Chappel would exclude what Waltke is talking about). Every sermon must drive us to action. If the message is true, then it demands something of us. And our job is to make that clear to our hearers.